How (not) to use social media for customer and market research

Research Social media listening and measurement tools can provide businesses with valuable information regarding their brand, competitors and the needs of people.

Many businesses use this information to make strategic discussions and integrate social media in techniques for customer and market research. The same goes for research companies.

However, this is not without risks. Users of different social media have a specific profile that varies depending on the medium and businesses should be aware that you cannot  extrapolate insights that are gathered via social media. This seems obvious but I have seen many press releases from companies saying that “the average consumer finds that…” and then later in the article it becomes clear that all this is based on a Twitter poll. This is entirely wrong, of course. 

With so many discussions to be picked up everywhere and so many resources for market and customer research, you may be tempted into thinking that companies specializing in research and surveys are now doomed. This is of course untrue. What is true is that most  research companies include social media in their research methods, often in very creative and well-developed ways. Why wouldn’t your company do the same?

There are plenty of possibilities, from Twitter surveys to direct feedback and contact. Many companies embrace social media as a solution for research and even co-creation, whereby the customer or ‘community’ is given a role to play in the definition of strategies for product development, communication, etc. (crowdsourcing), as you could read in some recent case studies. Research companies even use social media to set up panels, although this is often done in an integrated framework.

The danger of drawing general conclusions from very specific user groups

All this has huge benefits, but there is a risk of overvaluing social media feedback and ending up with useless data that don’t contribute anything to the improvement of your product, marketing campaign or company strategy.

One example: suppose that you are launching a new tourist service or product for families with children. You could make inquiries with travel forums and travel blogs. Perhaps you can even find some forums and blogs, specifically for families with children, which would slightly increase the focus of your research. 

However, if your new travel service is meant for a general audience of families with children, you should of course realize that not all families with young children spend time on these forums and blogs. In other words, the selection of online and social media only to build research panels, perform surveys and seek feedback provides results that should be considered from the perspective of the specific target groups you reached.

Again, this seems obvious, but many companies are guilty of drawing general conclusions from very specific user groups. 

Social media use in research is an integrated story

Social media marketing should be part of your total marketing strategy. It will undoubtedly become that after a while. Every marketing discipline that has been around for some time, such as email marketing, has its own rules and requires people with expertise. It does not exist independently. 

Social media have a huge impact on all aspects of marketing, and they will undoubtedly continue to evolve and require new tactics and strategies, but in the end, they will become part of the company’s daily marketing reality.

We see exactly the same phenomenon in the area of the effects social media have on market and consumer research. Virtually every business uses social media in the research space, but they tend to do so in an integrated way. Some surveys do not use any social media or hardly any at all, others use them a lot. 

It all depends on the target group, what you want to know and obviously the market researchers’ creativity and eagerness to innovate. Social media are a complement to market research and its impact is already very apparent. 

This will undoubtedly continue to evolve, but one will never replace the other. It is not an “either-or” story. 

It is about integration and cross-pollination based on the results you are looking for. There is no reason whatsoever to approach things differently as a marketer. 

Do not underestimate the value of social media, but do not overestimate it either.

People’s feedback and answers come in many forms and overestimating social media conversations or surveys can lead to huge distortions in the insights you gain and the resulting conclusions and actions. 

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